Fast, fun, and full of improvisation, jazz is full of talented musicians. They play various instruments and each has its recognizable technique. The piano is easily one of the most impressive and is equally versatile being able to be a supporting instrument or take center stage in the right hands.
There have been countless amazing jazz pianists over the 100 years or so of jazz history and we couldn’t list them all. But, in this post, we’re going to take a small look at some of the most famous jazz piano players since its inception.
1. Oscar Peterson
A list of jazz pianists should really start with one of the greats and possibly one of the greatest has to be Oscar Peterson who was a Canadian jazz pianist born in 1925.
He got his musical break playing at a concert for Norman Ganz at Carnegie Hall in 1949 and Peterson took most of his influences from Art Tatum and Nat King Cole.
Nonetheless, Peterson’s playing, full of almost throw-away notes and daring sweeps of the keys, was all his own.
Probably known most for his recordings as a trio, Peterson played with jazz double bassists, Ray Brown, Sam Jones, and Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen as well as drummers Ed Thigpen, Louis Hayes, and guitarists such as Joe Pass and Herb Ellis.
He started playing solo piano in the 1970s, which he found not only popular with audiences but intensely satisfying in their own right.
His improvisations were ambitious, acrobatic feats of performance and he loved playing them as much as his audience loved listening.
He went on to win the Praemium Imperiale Prize from the Japan Art Association in 1999 and died in 2007 of kidney failure.
2. Duke Ellington
One of the great jazz composers and pianist Edward Kennedy Ellington or Duke Ellington as he was more commonly known was born in 1899 in Washington DC.
He quickly became a household name giving his first New York performance in 1923.
From there, it was a short leap to the formation of his sextet, which quickly became a ten-piece band and finally a fourteen-piece ensemble known as the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
Between 1927 and 1931, his orchestra were regular performers at the forum Cotton Club in Harlem where he really made a name for himself.
As well as his piano playing he was also known for his compositions with some of his best-known pieces including Mood Indigo, It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing), and Satin Doll which all became staples of the jazz repertoire.
3. Count Basie
Count Basie is another great jazz piano player who played an integral role in reshaping the musical landscape of the early twentieth century.
He got his nickname ‘Count’ later when giving a radio broadcast.
Anxious that Basie’s presence on the station got the attention it deserved, surrounded by greats like Duke Ellington and Earl Hines, the continuity announcer half-seriously dubbed him ‘Count’ throughout the show.
The name stuck, and a legend was born.
Basie was known for his orchestra, the Count Basie Orchestra with a number of well-known songs including Swingin’ the Blues, One O’clock Jump, and Five O’clock Jive.
4. Wynton Kelly
Born Wynton Charles Kelly, he made his professional debut at 12 and by 16, he was an R&B sensation.
Wanting to establish more of a name for himself, Kelly began recording three years later with Diana Washington.
He accompanied Washington in recording and subsequently became a member of Dizzy Gillespie’s band, thereby switching from R&B to jazz.
It stuck. Despite a two-year turn in military service, Kelly returned to the jazz scene as accomplished and beloved as ever.
He was part of Miles Davies band from 1959-63 and the pianist on Davies album Kind of Blue, which remains the best-selling jazz album on record.
5. Brad Meldhau
A more modern jazz pianist, Brad Meldhau started playing and recording in the 1990s, releasing his first album in 1998.
But he cut his teeth with jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman as part of his renowned quartet with Christian McBride and Brian Blade.
While he also recorded and gave solo performances, Meldhau preferred the conversational exchange of the trio form playing extensively with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jorge Rossy and later Jeff Ballard.
He released his latest album, Variations on a Melancholy Theme, in June of 2021 and continues to tour.
6. Mary Lou Williams
Next on our list we have great female jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams wo was born in 1910 in Atlanta Georgia.
In 1929, she moved to Oklahoma and first played for and then took over leadership of Andy Kirk’s band, the Twelve Clouds of Joy.
Under Williams, the band caught public attention for Williams’ solo piano performances and her innovative musical arrangements.
In 1942 she moved to New York where she switched from the swing music style to bebop.
But, ever musically versatile, she continued to arrange, and the 70s saw her writing and arranging liturgical music for jazz ensembles.
She joined the faculty of music at Duke University in 1977 where she taught and continued to perform until she died in 1981 at the age of 71 of cancer.
7. Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock’s musical debut came in 1951 when he played a Mozart concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
But, despite his classical abilities, his career was to be jazz and he joined Miles Davies’ quintet, and over the next five years, built up a name playing with Davies and his contemporaries.
He went on to be a major figure in the development of funk and jazz fusion music utilizing synthesizers in his music.
As well as performing, he was also a prolific composer writing a number of compositions that became jazz standards such as “Cantaloupe Island”, “Watermelon Man” and “Maiden Voyage” He even wrote the score for the innovative and interesting film Blow-Up.
8. Thelonious Monk
American pianist Thelonious Monk was described by some as playing with a dash of elbow and a touch of vinegar.
But the music Monk played was ahead of its time, and Monk got tired of playing to depleted audiences.
In 1956 released Brilliant Corners. That got him noticed.
The recording was a virtuosic display of improvisation, challenging harmonies, and equally challenging sounds.
The success sent the Thelonious Monk Quartet, including John Coltrane, on tour across America and cemented Monk in the growing jazz consciousness.
As well as his incredible ability on the piano, he was also known as a composer writing classics of the jazz repertoire such as Blue Monk, Straight No Chaser, Round About Midnight, and I Mean You.
By 1964, Monk went from overlooked to the front page of Time magazine, a first for a jazz artist.
But he retired shortly afterward in the 1970s and died after a long and serious illness in 1984.
9. Art Tatum
Art Tatum was known for his incredible dexterity on the piano, his amazing improvisation skills, and believe it or not, was also a blind pianist.
Born with cataracts in both eyes, Tatum never let his vision deter him from playing.
The musical standard he set left fellow artists like Gershwin and Fats Waller rapt and listening.
Everyone agreed no one played like Art Tatum and was one of the biggest influences on later pianists such as Oscar Peterson, Bud Powell, and Lennie Tristano.
He died in 1956 of uremia.
10. Bill Evans
Bill Evans is another one of the great jazz pianists whose influence continues to reverberate through the jazz community.
Evans worked with Miles Davies in 1958. It was an eight-month collaboration between musicians and resulted in the album Kind of Blue in 1959.
After its release, Evans formed a trio with Paul Motian and Scott LaFaro.
In his solo work, musicians felt the influence of earlier Romantic-Era composers and it made a striking contrast to the contemporary bebop style of playing.
Like most other pianists on this list, he was also a composer writing a number of classics such as Waltz for Debby, Peace Piece and Blue in Green.
11. George Shearing
British-born pianist Sir George Shearing left postwar Britain to start a career in America.
His success was instant. He was a long way from Battersea and people loved his bright, clear playing.
His greatest hit was Lullaby of Birdland.
Like Tatum, Shearing was also blind learning to play by ear and in 2007 Shearing, they knighted him for his dedication to music.
12. Dave Brubeck
Another one of the greats, composer and pianist Dave Brubeck revitalized jazz in the 1950s and 60s.
He got people listening again with pieces like Take Five and Unsquare Dance.
Throughout his career, he worked effectively with fellow musician Paul Desmond.
It wasn’t his only partnership but it was a long-lived collaboration and its legacy remains relevant today.
13. Marian McPartland
Born in Slough, England in 1918, Marian McPartland began playing piano in childhood and soon realized she had perfect pitch.
When war broke out, McPartland joined the Entertainments National Service Association.
When the war ended she followed Shearing’s example and moved to America, where she was influential in the development of bebop and cool jazz.
By the 1950s McPartland headed her trio and remained a concert favorite for the rest of her career.
14. Red Garland
Red Garland was born William Garland in Dallas, Texas. Unlike other pianists on this list, he came to piano late beginning on the clarinet and only taking up the piano when he was 19.
Garland played with Miles Davies’ ensembles but he was influential in the bebop movement in his own right.
He went on to lead his group and returned to Texas later in his career, where he continued to play and perform.
15. Sonny Clark
Conrad Yeatis, better known as Sonny Clark was a pianist whose career was sadly short-lived.
He began his musical collaboration working with saxophonist Wardell Gray.
He later accompanied Dinah Washington, and when he moved to New York, he quickly became a favorite accompanist.
He went on to release a number of his own records such as The Art of The Trio, Cool Struttin’, and the Sonny Clark Trio.
He sadly died in 1963 of a heroin overdose at the young age of 31.
16. McCoy Tyner
McCoy Tyner was another pianist known to most jazz aficionados for his time in the John Coltrane Quartet.
But he also had a successful career as a solo jazz piano player and throughout it won five Grammy Awards for his music.
He grounded lyrical and fluid improvisations with sturdy left-handed chords.
He created a sound immediately recognizable that can be heard on a number of famous albums such as Coltrane’s My Favourite Things and A Love Supreme.
17. Keith Jarret
Keith Jarret started his career at age seven, playing his music while still in school.
Jarret worked on various jazz collaborations with fellow artists and in 1967 released his first solo album.
He came to the attention of the jazz world while working with Miles Davies in 1969 and by the 1970s, Jarret led his jazz group
In more recent times, he’s particularly known for his trio with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette.
He’s also famous for the sounds he makes with his voice while he plays. He’s often heard to hum, sing or grunt along with his improvisations, sometimes for the entire concert!
18. Fats Waller
And finally, we have one of the earliest jazz pianists Fats Waller, a popular stride and ragtime pianist who later turned his attention to jazz.
He took the spotlight as a jazz pianist in the 1930s with songs like Ain’t Misbehavin’, Honeysuckle Rose and The Jitterbug Waltz.
He achieved a lot of success appearing on the radio and in films performing in theatres and revues throughout the 1940s.
He died of pneumonia in 1943 at the age of 39.